Mo Johnston wanted to play in Tampa, if he’s being honest. In his first trip to the United States in 1989, he fell in love with the culture in Florida, so much so that he bought a home in Orlando before the vacation had concluded.
So when he agreed to play in Major League Soccer seven years later, he began a dialogue with Tampa ownership about an agreement.
It never happened, of course. For reasons he still hasn’t quite figured out, MLS allocated Johnston to the Kansas City Wizards instead.
The next five years produced an MLS Cup title, three All-Star selections and finally a hall of fame election.
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On Wednesday, Johnston, 54, will be inducted as the newest Sporting Legend before Sporting Kansas City takes on the Seattle Sounders FC at Children’s Mercy Park. He will be the ninth member of the club’s hall of honor, visible on an overhang along the stadium’s north end.
“As it turns out, the move to Kansas City was the best move that I could have made,” Johnston said. “The Midwest was perfect for me and my family. I made loads of friends here. I had three kids born here. Many, many great memories in Kansas City.”
Johnston, who still sports bleach blonde hair, sunglasses and a charismatic personality, observed Sporting KC practice Tuesday morning. Before the training session began, Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes introduced Johnston to the team. Vermes and club assistant Kerry Zavagnin were teammates with Johnston on the 2000 Wizards, who won the MLS championship, coached by Bob Gansler.
Johnston made 170 total appearances with the Wizards, tallying 32 goals and 31 assists.
“When you talk about what makes a great player, you talk about a guy who makes everyone around him better. That’s what Mo did,” Gansler said “Whether they were his best friend off the field or not, that didn’t matter. He was going to do what it took to win. It was something to be applauded.”
Johnston, a Scotland native, played overseas for 15 seasons before migrating to MLS. He later coached in MLS as well.
Throughout his career, he was known to illicit strong opinions from fans — both good and bad. He was full of personality, especially off the field — “always well-dressed, well-groomed, all that stuff,” as Gansler put it.
“Life has a lot of joys,” Gansler said. “His philosophy was, why not participate?”
In retirement, Johnston is attempting to make a business from that personality. He started his own sports management company in Florida in 2014 as a way to stay connected to the game.
The trip to Children’s Mercy Park on Wednesday will be his first in three seasons and kick off the club’s retro night. The soccer-specific venue was a vision he had in his first MLS season.
“I said way back then that you need to get in smaller stadiums and get out of your football stadiums,” Johnston said. “Don’t get me wrong: Arrowhead Stadium was magnificent. I loved going to Chiefs games there, even though I never knew a thing about American football. I liked to tailgate and drink and carry on.
“But when you look at the whole transformation of this club and getting a new ownership group and new stadium, you can’t get any better than this. To me, this is the best in MLS.”